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Black, autistic, and killed by police

Stephon Watts was diagnosed with Asperger's at age nine—and shot dead by Calumet City cops at age 15. Now his family is working to keep other kids with autism out of the line of fire.

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Danelene Powell and Steven Watts Sr. hold a photo of their son Stephon, right, as a young child. Also pictured is another son, Steven Jr. - JEFFREY MARINI
  • Jeffrey Marini
  • Danelene Powell and Steven Watts Sr. hold a photo of their son Stephon, right, as a young child. Also pictured is another son, Steven Jr.

On a sunny Saturday last April, a small crowd gathered in a Calumet City park to mourn the loss of a black child.

"I want you to realize we have tragedies every day, black families," 58-year-old Steven Watts told the crowd. His voice was worn and somber, barely eclipsing the hum of passing cars. "I saw it. I watched it. And for three years now, this is what I see every single day: I see my son dying. I see his eyes closing. And for what?"

Watts flexed his thumb and forefinger, thinned by an ongoing battle with stomach cancer, into the shape of a gun. It was a crude representation of the scene he witnessed in the basement of his home on February 1, 2012, when Calumet City police officers

William Coffey and Robert Hynek shot and killed his youngest child.

Fifteen-year-old Stephon Edward Watts joined a now familiar litany of young black men killed by white police officers. But his case was even more complicated than most.

Stephon (pronounced steh-FON) had autism. He was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome—a complex developmental disability characterized by social and communication difficulties, eccentric behavior, and often singular, intense interests—at age nine. People with an autism spectrum disorder are seven times more likely to encounter police than "neurotypical" individuals, or those without developmental disabilities, according to autism experts. Depending on the severity of their disorder, people on the autism spectrum can react inappropriately to police and have trouble following commands.

When a lack of understanding drives both sides of the equation, police interactions with developmentally disabled populations can—and often do—result in tragedy. But with better training, the Watts family says, those encounters don't have to end that way.


Calumet City—population 37,042—sits just south of Chicago in Cook County on the border with Indiana. The majority-black town has had more than its fair share of scandals in recent years.

In 2005 alone, a deputy police chief was charged with stealing $26,000 in narcotics-bust cash (he later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor theft charge); a racist effigy hung from a billboard before the mayoral primary election; and excessive-force charges involving another black 15-year-old were filed against a veteran police officer by his own department.

This September, the city settled, for $2.1 million, another excessive-force case relating to the 2012 death of 20-year-old Archie Lee Chambers, who sustained three bullet wounds after police fired at him between 11 and 13 times, according to court documents.

Still, to the Watts family, Calumet City was home. Their modest white frame house on Forsythe Avenue was silhouetted in ivy and included a basement where Steven and Stephon slept. It was where Steven and his then wife, Danelene Powell, raised their three youngest children: Renee, now 29; Steven Jr., 20; and Stephon. Their eldest, 33-year-old Fabion, left the nest before the family moved from nearby Dolton in 2002.

On Wednesday evenings, Stephon's aunt and grandmother would take him to Bible study. Typical Sunday services triggered his sensory issues—he would cover his ears and wail to drown out the sound. Two months before his 15th birthday, he begged his mother to get him baptized: "I love him," Danelene now says, "but the Lord loves him more."

“The police are trying to apply principles for ‘neurotypicals’ that don’t work with an autistic population. . . .You’ve got two people who don’t understand each other.”

—Clinical psychologist Genevieve Thornton­

Even though he was a five-foot-seven, 205-pound teenager, Stephon's family called him "Baby." He liked to stroke his mother's arm, press her skin to his cheek, and declare how soft it was. His face lit up whenever his mother promised him a piece of his favorite fruit if he behaved.

"A pomegranate was all he needed to be happy," Danelene, 51, recalled in the living room of her Sauk Village home. When she gave one to him, Stephon would hang his head, bury his hands between his knees, and giggle. "He was 15, but he was just a child, you understand? That's how autism works."

But Danelene said Stephon often refused to take his Abilify, the medication he was prescribed to treat his symptoms of poor concentration and aggression. When he didn't take it for extended periods, Stephon was prone to bouts of anger: refusing to listen to others, fighting with family members, and retreating into a mental space that not even his family could penetrate.

Like many families with autistic children, the Watts family relied on emergency services for help when Stephon became agitated or wandered off. Steven said social workers and doctors advised him to contact the police when Stephon needed immediate psychiatric care. But Steven, who grew up in Chicago with an intense distrust of law enforcement, wanted the police to have no part in his son's treatment.

"Steven would tell me, 'Stop calling the police. They're going to murder Stephon one day,' " Danelene said in an interview. She's from Jamaica, where she grew up viewing police officers as problem solvers. Her brother was a police officer back home, and Danelene herself once worked as a clerk for the Dolton Police Department.

The Wattses called 911 or the city's nonemergency hotline ten times during the past four years, Danelene estimates, seeking help for Stephon. Danelene and Steven Jr. made nine of those calls. But Steven Sr. would often usher his son into the car and drive away before the police even arrived.

"I said, 'No, Steven, they're trained professionals,' " Danelene recalls. " 'They know he has a disability, so how could they hurt him?' "


Even with the best of intentions, spotting and properly dealing with the signs of mental illness and disability are special challenges for first responders: autistic individuals don't always react to things like eye contact, commands, sounds, and changes in their environments the way most people do.

Visits from law enforcement officers can mean sensory overload for people with autism. Shiny badges, flashing lights, and loud voices can escalate the situation and lead to inappropriate responses, says autism advocate and police training specialist Dennis Debbaudt.

"Their actions, though not mean or malicious, can appear that way to others," he wrote in his 2002 book Autism, Advocates and Law Enforcement Professionals.

"You've got two people who don't understand each other," explains Genevieve Thornton, a clinical psychologist based in Northbrook. "The police are trying to apply principles for 'neurotypicals' that don't work with an autistic population."

Many police departments have addressed this disconnect by offering training programs designed to help officers understand these kinds of disabilities.

For example, the Chicago Police Department offers a 40-hour program based in Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training, a model used in more than 2,700 communities to teach officers how to de-escalate mental and developmental health crises and ultimately link citizens with social and medical services. But just 20 percent of Chicago's 12,000-some officers have received this voluntary training, according to the 2014 testimony of a senior police official. Compounding matters, a lack of state funding had the program on hold, says Eric Pingolt, director of the West Central Illinois Criminal Justice Council, which conducts police training in the western and central parts of the state. The program was recently reinstated, Pingolt says.

Watts, pictured with Powell at an April rally, mimics what he saw when police drew their guns on Stephon. - ADRIENNE HURST
  • Adrienne Hurst
  • Watts, pictured with Powell at an April rally, mimics what he saw when police drew their guns on Stephon.

With just 82 officers and a $10.6 million budget, Calumet City's police force is tiny compared to Chicago's. Still, the department requires its officers to take "roughly two hours" of training annually on autism and Alzheimer's disease, according to Sergeant Jason Menclewicz, the force's training director.

Indeed, the Calumet City Police Department flagged the Wattses' address with a "10-96" code to alert responding officers that someone with a mental disability lived there, both Hynek and Coffey stated in 2013 depositions taken as part of a wrongful-death lawsuit Danelene filed against Calumet City and the two officers.

And the department's officers had used crisis-intervention techniques with Stephon on several occasions in the past.

In March 2011, for instance, Stephon barricaded himself in a bathroom with a knife after his father told him to turn off his video game.

Hynek and Coffey were among five officers who responded after Stephon's family called police for help. A negotiator was also called to the scene during that incident, police records show.

Danelene said the negotiator asked about Stephon's interests, searching for a topic of conversation that would engage him. The negotiator started chatting with Stephon about his favorite video game, World of Warcraft. Something clicked: Stephon relinquished the knife, unlocked the bathroom door, and was taken to the hospital for treatment.

Nine months later, on December 10, 2011—his 15th birthday—Stephon hit his mother under her left eye after refusing to take his medication, according to a police incident report. (Danelene says it was her jaw that took the blow and that Stephon fell to his knees in prayer when he "snapped out of it.") Shaken by the violent outburst, she called 911 in order to get him back on his medication and into emergency psychiatric treatment.

When Calumet City police officers William Slough and Fernando Guerrero arrived, they saw that Stephon had a knife in his hand, according to the police incident report. They asked him to drop it. Instead, he bolted down the street.

"Kids like this feel such a lack of control," Thornton explains. "They don't understand, explicitly, the stimulus response"—how reactions to stimuli can trigger their behavior.

In addition, autistic children tend to be impulsive and have poor executive functioning, which drives problem solving, reasoning, working memory, and task-management skills.

"When you're impulsive and you pick up a knife, what you notice is you get attention," Thornton says. "You stop whatever's going on, you get power and you get control. But unfortunately, it's a maladaptive response"—one that is counterproductive to the individual's and others' safety.

After initially running from police, Stephon turned and charged at Officer Slough. Stephon was "swinging the knife" when Slough and Guerrero tased him, according to the incident report. The first shock did not penetrate his suede jacket, but the second was effective in causing Stephon to drop the knife, Slough wrote when documenting the knife as evidence. Stephon was transported to Franciscan Saint Margaret hospital in Hammond, Indiana, for a mental evaluation and then to Streamwood Behavioral hospital in Streamwood for two weeks of psychiatric care.


Stephon was holding a knife on the day he died, too. Only this time, his family maintains, it was a butter knife, not the 4.5-inch kitchen knife pictured in a later investigation by state police of the incident. (Danelene, following orders from Stephon's doctor, says she hid all the sharp knives from her kitchen after the prior incidents.) He was using the knife to unlock the door to a basement bedroom where his father had stashed the computer as punishment after Stephon refused to go to school that day, Steven said. It would have been his third day at Easter Seals Autism Therapeutic School in Tinley Park, where he had recently transferred.

Stephon, who wanted to become a computer programmer, was "tussling" with his dad over the computer, yanking it back and forth. This was unusual for the pair, Steven says. He describes him and his son as "best friends" who spent their days watching the History Channel and designing computer games when Steven was on cancer-related leave from his job as a school bus driver.

Frustrated, Steven made his first call to Calumet City's nonemergency police line.

"[Stephon] made me mad," Steven said in an interview. But as soon as he placed the call he regretted it: "I knew I made a terrible mistake. Knew it, knew it, knew it." Steven dialed the dispatcher again and told him not to send help, that he had overreacted. But the police were already on their way.

When officers Coffey, Hynek, and Jeff McBrayer knocked on the Wattses' door around 8:30 AM, Steven told them everything was under control. Hynek said he still needed to "check the house to make sure everyone in the house was safe and not injured," according to his summarized interview in the state investigation. He checked the bathroom, kitchen, and dining room. (Danelene questions the term "everyone" in Hynek's account, wondering why he didn't check the first-floor bedroom where she was sleeping.)

“Their job is to serve and protect. Why did they serve two bullets in my son, in my baby, and didn’t protect him?”

—Danelene Powell­

Feeling uneasy, Steven told the officers his son had left the house—a conceivable fabrication, considering Stephon's past attempts to run away. But when Stephon called out from the basement, Steven reluctantly agreed to let one officer check on him. Instead, all three followed Steven down the stairs: Hynek first, then Coffey, and then McBrayer. Hynek stopped just before he reached the bottom step, according to the state investigation.

All parties agree: it happened in a matter of seconds. With his father a few steps away, Stephon came from around the corner and moved toward the stairs within arm's reach of the officers, waving the knife in his hand. "He wasn't running, but he wasn't walking," Hynek said in his deposition.

No one asked Stephon to drop the knife. Nor did Hynek use any of the de-escalation techniques he learned in training, he testified. In his own deposition, Coffey did not say whether or not he used those techniques, but indicated he thought about them on his way to the scene.

As Stephon came into Hynek's view, Hynek yelled, "Knife!"—and the officers fired two shots at Stephon. The first bullet, fired by Hynek, hit Stephon under his right armpit; the second came from Coffey and struck Stephon in his back, according to the state investigation. Young Kim, the pathologist who performed the autopsy at the Lake County coroner's office, informed state investigators that the second shot likely caused Stephon's death.

"Check me for holes," Hynek yelled at his fellow officers immediately afterward, saying, according to his later deposition, "I know that he hit me with that knife at least once."

Hynek and Coffey both testified that they couldn't find the cut on Hynek's forearm—pictured in the state investigation—until they walked into the police station a few minutes later.


After Stephon's death, the Illinois State Police Public Integrity Task Force (PITF) conducted an investigation of the shooting. The PITF investigates officer-involved shootings in Cook County—excluding Chicago, which has its own Independent Police Review Authority—and submits its interviews and evidence to Cook County state's attorney Anita Alvarez's office for review.

On April 12, 2012, assistant state's attorney LuAnn Snow wrote the following in a letter to the Illinois State Police: "Our review of the investigation revealed no conduct by Officers William Coffee [sic] #211 and Robert Hyrak [sic] #157 during this shooting that would give rise to criminal charges against the officers."

Both Hynek and Coffey had previously been involved in one excessive-force case each, according to the 2013 depositions each officer made. A man named Zachary Kinney claimed that Coffey used racial slurs and reckless physical force against him; the case was settled and dismissed without prejudice in 2009. Hynek testified he received no discipline for the accusations made against him and another officer in 1997 (court docket information on the case is too dated to be immediately accessed).

In addition, Coffey and Hynek testified that they had received autism-related training just once in the six and 17 years, respectively, they'd been on the force before Stephon's death.

Each received 11 weeks of paid administrative leave following the shooting.

Coffey's attorney, John Murphey, acknowledges the tragedy of the case, but says the legality of it is fairly straightforward.

"We believe that, based on the undisputed facts, the use of deadly force was reasonable," he said in an interview. "The people who defend us have the right to defend themselves."

Murphey said Coffey is not allowed to speak with media while the Wattses' lawsuit is pending. Circuit judge Eileen Brewer granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment in July, stating that the officers were "in the execution and enforcement of the law at the time of this incident" and that their deadly force was legally justified. The Wattses' attorney, former Cook County commissioner Anthony Peraica, filed an appeal in November.

"Despite Defendants' arguments to the contrary, the ensuing result—the extinguishment of a young life—was not necessary," Peraica wrote in the brief.

The Calumet City Police Department would not comment on the case, assistant police chief Tom DiFiori said, also citing the pending appeal.


Fourteen-year-old Stephon, center, receives a bible two weeks after his baptism. - JEFFREY MARINI
  • Jeffrey Marini
  • Fourteen-year-old Stephon, center, receives a bible two weeks after his baptism.

Although tragic, Stephon's death was no anomaly. There are no official statistics on the police-involved deaths of autistic minors—or police shootings in general, although the FBI said last week in the wake of the Laquan McDonald video that it would start tracking all police shootings in the U.S. The numbers that do exist create a stark, if imprecise, picture of what it means to be black and disabled in the U.S.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1.2 million children under the age of 21 have been diagnosed with autism. White children are 30 percent more likely to receive an autism diagnosis than black children—experts say the discrepancy may lie in health-care access and parental education. Of those black children who do get diagnosed, roughly 48 percent also have some sort of intellectual disability.

In a Washington Post analysis of nearly 400 police-involved deaths, a quarter of which involved someone with a mental illness, black people were killed three times more often than whites or other minorities.

Taken together, these statistics suggest that black people with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses are less likely to get diagnosed or get medical treatment than their white peers. And if they do encounter police, which Debbaudt says they are more apt to do, they are more likely to be shot and killed.

Despite the state's findings, Stephon's family desperately wishes the officers had taken a different approach.

"When you deal with a child with autism, you don't come at it with guns blazing," said Wayne Watts, Stephon's uncle, his voice wavering at a Burger King in Chicago's Beverly neighborhood. "There is no reason that child should not be sitting here today."

Steven said he's exhausted himself trying to understand why police didn't use de-escalation techniques with his son that day.

"Let's give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they were in fear of their lives, and they took their weapons out and they shot him," Steven said. "My problem with that is they didn't try to stop him; they tried to kill him."

"They could have kicked him, kicked the knife out of his hand, anything," Danelene added.

"Butter knife—it was a butter knife," Steven Jr. interjected.

In any case, "their job is to serve and protect," Danelene said. "Why did they serve two bullets in my son, in my baby, and didn't protect him?"


Among police, a widely accepted benchmark for the distance an individual with a knife can cover in the time it takes an officer to react is 21 feet. So what could the officers who shot Stephon at close range have done differently?

Louis Turner, a security-training specialist who teaches crisis-intervention tactics for Illinois security officers and others across the state, says that, for one, officers could have used their Tasers, as they had with Stephon in the past.

"The police department dropped the ball," he says. Turner, whose adult daughter is autistic, also works as a security guard for the Chicago-based disability-rights organization Access Living.

Police also need to realize that their presence can escalate an autistic child's aggression, he said, adding that there was no need for all three officers to check on Stephon.

Responding officers should "come to the realization that this call will take longer—there's no need to rush," Debbaudt says. He recommends in his book that police responding to crises involving autism adhere to the following acronym:


A - Approach the person in a quiet, nonthreatening manner.


U - Understand that touching a person with autism may cause a "fight or flight" reaction.


T -Talk to the person in a calm voice, repeating directions or questions several times if necessary.


I -Instruct the person simply and directly.


S -Seek to evaluate the situation as it is unfolding.


M -Maintain a safe distance and be able to retreat, if necessary, to de-escalate the situation.


Police officers aren't the only people who should follow those guidelines, Danelene says.

"There could be somebody in a house fire and there's someone in there with autism. [A firefighter] could say a whole bunch of things to that person, and none of that the person would hear. They need to know how to talk to someone in cases like that, how to coax them out of the fire."

First responders "need to be very patient, be very slow, take a step back and process" when dealing with children who have autism, says Kelly Moore, Stephon's special education teacher of five years. She described Stephon as intelligent, nonviolent, and self-aware—but easily overwhelmed by his own obsessive thoughts.

"Stephon is a very typical example of what first responders would come across," she says. "This is what they're going to see. And they're going to see a lot more of it because [autism diagnosis] numbers are on the rise."

Some experts, however, say the responsibility goes both ways. Autism researcher and law enforcement trainer Emily Iland hosts interactive screenings of her film Be Safe, which teaches young autistic people how to safely interact with police officers. Iland calls education on the autism-community side "the first de-escalation technique."

"The police can't go home dead because somebody has autism," she said. "We have to teach our young people how to be safe when they interact with the police . . . How much practice did they need to learn to tie their shoes? Tons and tons—and so it's dangerous and very risky to not be explicitly teaching."


Steven Watts Sr. and Danelene Powell - JEFFREY MARINI
  • Jeffrey Marini
  • Steven Watts Sr. and Danelene Powell

But the Wattses don't call what happened to Stephon a shooting. They call it a murder.

"Stephon was a special child. They murdered our baby, and I'll never forget it," his uncle Wayne says. "No pepper spray, no mace, no negotiating. Nine-millimeters."

On that chilly February morning in 2012, Danelene ran outside, barefoot and in her pajamas.

"They killed Stephon," she wailed at bystanders. "They murdered my baby." Steven remained quiet, in shock.

Stephon, as described by a paramedic interviewed in the state investigation, "didn't say anything and never had a pulse."

It's been three years since Danelene lost her son, but the grief has not subsided—it comes in waves. She feels it during her daily shift at the Hegewisch Ford assembly plant, where she inspects the paint jobs on new vehicles. Every so often, she stands and watches as a black car comes toward her on the assembly line—the same kind of car driven by Calumet City police officers, she says.

Today, along with Advance Youth Leadership Power, a subgroup of Access Living, the Wattses are drafting legislation that would require mental illness and developmental disability training for all first responders—police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical technicians—nationwide.

"They'll know what to do" with better training, Steven said. "They won't be pulling out their nine-millimeters."

Through the Stephon Watts Law, which is in the early stages of drafting and research, Danelene hopes to expand upon an Illinois law that is already in place. In 2007, state legislators voted to require autism identification and interaction training for school police officers—a small step toward the reality Danelene would have wanted for Stephon.

In the wake of a strikingly similar incident in 2003, police familiar with 15-year-old Paul Childs shot and killed him in his Denver home while he was carrying a knife. The Childs family attempted to pass Paul's Law—a proposal that would have mandated developmental disability training for all Colorado police officers—but legislators agreed that expanding the city's CIT training would be enough.

"We need the world to see that all first responders need training," Danelene said through tears, a rubber Autism Speaks bracelet dangling from her wrist.

"What they need to understand is this person has a disability, and what they do is no fault of their own," she said. "They never asked to be born that way." v

This story was produced as part of the Social Justice News Nexus, a journalism fellowship program housed at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

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